Sheer indulgence

We came back from downtown Cairo last week not with a few books from my favourite store, nor stocks of organic food from the bio-shop, nor even gifts of locally made soaps, skin creams and cotton towels for family and friends overseas.

Rather, we had a boot full of plants, a bag of pepper and aubergine seedlings, and a pomegranate tree stretching almost from boot to windscreen. It was rather fun turning corners, negotiating roundabouts and getting through traffic on the flyover all the while holding on to the tree with love, trying to keep her steady.

The pomegranate is one of my favourite trees, not only for the bright green softness of the young leaves, nor the slightly whimsical form of the branches. I love them also for their luminous orange flowers, and for the strange beauty of the fruit.

We had spent a productive morning at Cairo’s Spring Flower Show. Armed with a list of items we needed, we were remarkably successful in tracking them all down, from traps to deal with fruit fly (to protect our guava crop) to bedding plants as gifts for relatives.

But there’s much more to the event than this. It’s sheer indulgence to take the time to wander round and enjoy the show, set in the once glorious – though now somewhat faded – former royal gardens in El-Urman Park, among splendid palms and a fascinating collection of conifers from around the world.

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Businesses represented were mostly from Cairo and the surrounding countryside. The breadth of items, covering everything from gardening equipment to seedlings, beekeeping paraphernalia to irrigation materials, was impressive and useful; normally we would have to travel all over to track them down.

Among the herbs were quantities of rosemary, thyme and oregano, but the selection was less extensive than last year. Seedlings, purchased by the plug, included aubergines, cabbages, capsicums, lettuces and tomatoes. I’m always interested in the packets of seeds: We usually buy basic seeds – coriander, dill, parsley, rocket – from a kind of general store or grocer’s shop, but more specialised seeds are harder to find. At the show, they come either commercially packaged or sorted into simple brown paper packets with handwritten labels:

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There were not so many fruit trees this year, as far as I could tell, but still there was a reasonable selection of citrus, mango, apple, peach, pear and so on. You can see bananas (which are not trees, but grasses) in the foreground here:

Fruit trees

But you have to be vigilant when you buy: Our pomegranate, lovely as she is, turned out to have been recently uprooted and placed in a suspiciously small container. At least it wasn’t an old tin formerly used for industrial glue or paint, which is common practice in Egypt! But this meant that the gardener had to be extra careful in easing her out of the pot and into the garden: More on this in a later post, as well as on the amazing cultural, historical and culinary story of the pomegranate tree.



“Fragrance blooms on pear wood bones”

Sun and moon divide the sky,

Fragrance blooms on pear wood bones:

Earth wakens with a sigh.

Wanderer revels on the path alone.

Tomorrow is World Festival of Poetry Day*, and for the occasion I’ve chosen to look at one of our most beautiful fruit trees: the pear. She is beautiful because she is currently in full flower, and because her tall stately shape delights with a surprisingly slender and discreet presence in our tiny orchard.

The pear does not stand up and whack me in the face like the untidy guava, with branches bending all over the place, nor does she shred my hands and arms when I approach her like the lemon/limes. There’s no need to feel wary when you approach a pear tree!

Meanwhile, the plum tree nearby is also blooming:

This is the lighter plum: the other, dark red plum, which is normally the first fruit tree to bloom in our garden, almost completely failed to flower this spring. Frustratingly I can’t identify any of the varieties as every single tree came without labels. As you may recall, with one we famously didn’t even know what kind of tree we had until it produced fruit – kumquats.

As I do my rounds checking how the trees are every day, I get the impression that our bees are spoilt for choice. They simply don’t know quite where to start! The orange tree is always a good option:

Orange blossom and bee

It would be nice to think that we may have orange blossom honey later on, but the reality is that it will be well mixed with borage, rosemary, rocket, broad bean, dill and possibly nasturtium flavours too. Do the bees have a favourite among all these? My observation is that rosemary is perhaps the main attraction but rocket runs it a close second. The borage is popular, but tends to be a quick stop as the flowers are small and well spaced: sort of take-away food “on the run”!

In sum, I think the garden is the finest way to celebrate poetry: It is a living poem in itself, ever-changing, never still for a moment, yet fascinatingly in harmony. Each morning there are new blossoms, soft tender shoots, seedlings bursting upwards through the soil. The effect on the soul is magical.

In their wonderful book “The Secret Life of Plants“, Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird explored how much we really have in common with them: “Plants are living, breathing communicating creatures, endowed with personality and the attributes of soul …..bridesmaids at a marriage of physics and metaphysics”. Tomorrow morning’s garden round will be done with especial regard for my beautiful companions, the balm of my soul.

* Poem from “365 Tao, Daily Meditations” by Deng Ming-Dao

* World Festival of Poetry, as noted in my Italian Kitchen Calendar for 2017, which is a mine of information about gardening, fruit cultivation, cultural matters and poetry.

*”The Secret Life of Plants” by Tompkins and Bird, published by Harper



On not losing the plot…

January isn’t a good month for gardening in Egypt – and February usually begins in much the same vein. So it seemed a good opportunity to fly off and join some yogi friends in Bahrain to discuss, at a conference, how to face up to, and make the most of, these unstable and changing times.

At a previous yoga gathering, gardening had been one of the activities recommended for us to “make a difference”. Environmental campaigner Satish Kumar advised us: Don’t sit back and sigh and wish the world would change, but actively engage in shaping it as you would wish it to be.

Every time I go out in the garden to gather salad leaves or herbs, or a handful of broad beans in their pods for a quick, mood-lifting snack; or whenever I spot the hawks flying over the garden or a hoopoe digging for insects in the lawn, or the warblers bobbing in and out of our hedge: Then I remember his wise words, and I feel glad to have heard him speak.

Since returning from Manama I’ve been galvanised by a series of warm and sunny days and the sight of the first tentative leaf buds on the citrus trees, especially the satsuma which is in the sunniest spot; maybe also by the need to transplant seedlings into the raised beds or wherever else they are going to go. These are the few that actually germinated in pots on the upstairs balcony: sage, lavender, Thai basil and chamomile. The rest didn’t germinate at all, which means I’ve failed again with lemon balm, lemon grass etc.

I’ve spent the past few days cleaning the beds round the fruit trees and then spreading manure at the outer edge. Working at the rate of three trees per day, I’ve finished all but one citrus, our two pear trees and one plum. The satsuma (above left) was pruned earlier by removing some of the interior, crossing branches. The lemon (above right) was left to the gardener: he cut away a lot of the lower branches to give the orange scion light and air (i.e. a chance to grow!)  but I wish he’d been a bit more careful with the rest of the tree – I am deeply grateful for all the lemons it so generously gave us last year, and I note he has hacked away at the branches, leaving rough and torn edges, without clearing the interior properly – ugh!

I’m also clearing out the bed along the back hedge behind the raised beds with a view to adding Thai basil*, and maybe calendula along the front edge. The young rosemary plants previously placed there have established themselves. All were grown from cuttings taken from our irrepressible mother plant ‘Boris’. But I need flowering plants in front to give the border depth, colour and interest as well as to provide extra food for the beloved pollinators.

Also over the past few days, I have transplanted into RB4 young lettuce that were suffocating in a pot, close to a clutch of seedlings transplanted a few weeks ago. Others were squeezed into an empty patch in RB2, though there’s not much space as the heritage  mizuna is taking over:

Chamomile seedlings have been popped in with others sown directly into a corner of RB2 in the autumn – I haven’t had much luck with this herb but we have a few small plants, and hopefully there will be enough for some infusions later in the year.

It isn’t warm enough to sow summer crops such as courgettes and tomatoes. But I’m trying to get round this by filling pots with sand and soil and positioning them under plastic on the top balcony. After they have warmed up, and it only takes a day or two to create a tropical micro-climate, I can hopefully safely sow the seeds: Early courgette “Verde di Italia”, vine tomato “Chadwick Cherry” and vine salad tomato “Rose de Berne”. These, and the squash and aubergine seeds, are all heritage varieties from the Real Seed Catalogue.

So there is much more to come…


*A propos basil (rihaan in the Middle East, tulsi in India) staying among an Indian yogi community in Bahrain I came across all sorts of different tulsi teas, including one flavoured with rose and another with bergamot – “Tulsi Earl Grey”!  My favourite was an infusion made with tulsi and lemon grass from the garden with other flavourings: Mint, I think, and maybe cinnamon, and sweetened with honey.

Going pear-shaped

I’ve just tackled the business of pruning our two pear trees. It’s not a job I much enjoy, because I don’t really know what I’m doing. We’ll see if it works.

This insecurity about cutting back fruit trees may seem odd, because I grew up surrounded by them: the garden of our home in Hertfordshire was wonderfully stocked with apple, plum and even greengage trees, though I don’t remember a pear.

The fact is my parents rarely if ever pruned them, so I think I’ve inherited this hang-up: Like so many other things, I can say it’s all in the genes…

In any case, our pear trees have a tendency to behave oddly. The first one grows tall and straight and shows no inclination to spread out. Last year it formed a narrow frame, with dense foliage, towering over the guava and lime trees nearby. It looked as if it was suffocating in the summer heat.

The second one, planted against the green fence, was supposedly being trained into an espalier. But it encountered stiff resistance from the honeysuckle planted far too densely along the fence. Its leaves shrivelled and it almost gave up the ghost – before suddenly shooting up and aiming for the sky, just like tree (1). Are trees given to copycat behaviour, I wonder?

Especially odd was the manner in which tree (1) bore fruit: There was just one pear in the spring and it was ripe by July. Not very flavoursome, a little insipid, but fresh and juicy nonetheless. Then a second pear emerged, lower down the tree – and slowly, slowly ripened through the summer. It was the longest ripening ever of a pear, I reckon: Each day became a kind of challenge between us of “shall we go and see if the pear is ready to pick yet or not?” It was finally ready in September.

So the purpose of the pruning of tree (2) was to release the failed espalier branches and cut the whole tree back, in the hope that this one will now find her freedom and present us with a crop in 2017. Tree (1) meanwhile was cut down to size and thinned out by pruning two major branches, in the hope that she will develop more of a canopy and put less effort into outstripping the height of our house.

Following the instructions in the Egyptian Agriculture Ministry’s monthly diary I will wait until April to feed the two trees – they are the exception to the general rule of spreading fertiliser in February.

And then, as with most things in our garden, and perhaps in nature, we will wait – and watch.

Winter winds, winter warmers

It’s blowing quite a gale today, the wind whistling around our house and in through any ill-fitting windows and gaps beneath doors (of which there are a few…) Winter has arrived. Though the days are usually fairly sunny and bright with temperatures up to 20C, the warmth evaporates at night leaving us shivering in a stone-floored house.

We could run the a/cs, adjusting them to warm rather than cool – but that seems like chickening out. So we wrap up well, get out the rugs and blankets, and eat the warming foods of winter – billeela, spiced hoummus, shorba’t a’ats (lentil soup), warm karkadey*.

In the garden, we have done a lot of work to clear borders and collect leaves destined, for the most part, for the compost bins. Fruit trees are being pruned, notably the pears, satsuma, limes. The lemon will be pruned once we’ve taken all the fruit; the plum trees will be cut back later on.


Whether this is right, according to Egyptian farmers’ practice, I am not quite sure, as my basic guide has always been the Royal Horticultural Society’s text “Vegetable & Fruit Gardening” and that, naturally, is intended for use in the UK. I also have a “Monthly Diary” for the care of fruit crops from Egypt’s Ministry of Agriculture, and that’s quite helpful, provided my husband helps me out with the Arabic.

I love these books: the photos on the front are so enticing, I only wonder why my produce rarely looks anything like the images they present. Velvet peaches, perfectly shaped bananas, crowds of potatoes, or pears, or grapes – and not a bug in sight. I take refuge in the thought that they can’t possibly be organic: they are too spectacular to be true!

Today’s job for the gardening assistant was to clear leaves from the lawn and then spread compost over the grass. We have some fun before and after pictures:

You may notice the change in the weather from the moment when the leaves had been collected to the point when the compost was applied. Such a change is typical of this time of year in Egypt. It’s confusing for the gardener: you start off in shirt and jumper, maybe overheating in the sun, then run to add jacket, scarf and even a woolly hat while being blown around by the wind.

My chat with the gardener confirmed that, as the Ministry’s diary indicates, farmers don’t apply manure just now (we are now entering the agricultural month of Tuba, by the way). So we’ll keep the sacks of fertiliser, which were delivered along with the compost, until early February (Amsheer) when the muck is usually spread – but, I read, not around the pear trees. There’s magic in this system, I guess, referencing long-established practice by farmers over the millennia.

At least it gives me time to get to grips with pruning the big lemon tree. That means confronting its terrible thorns – it’s a job I dread.

  • Billeela: A sweet winter classic, made using wheat grains boiled for a while in water, then drained, and cooked in milk until soft. Add sugar to taste before serving, and your choice of cinnamon, sultanas, dessicated coconut and chopped nuts. I like to roast the nuts and coconut lightly.
  • Spiced hoummus: A favourite in our family. Prepare the chick peas by soaking overnight and then cooking in fresh water until beginning to soften. Drain. In a separate pan, gently soften grated ginger, add ground coriander, turmeric, cumin and chilli powder (also to taste), then add the chick peas and mix well. Cover generously with water, some chopped tomatoes or tomato puree and continue to cook until the chick peas are soft and have absorbed the spices. (I also add some chopped celery, carrot and onion, but this is unusual). Ensure there is still plenty of liquid with the chick peas, and serve in mugs or bowls with lots of fresh lemon juice.
  • Lentil soup: Needs no explanation! The preferred preparation in the Middle East is with lots of ground cumin and coriander; again, best served with lemon.
  • Warm karkaday: Made from the sepals of Hibiscus sabdariffa, a plant grown particularly in Upper Egypt. See also Snacking on hibiscus In winter this sweet drink can be served warm rather than on ice as in hot weather.

Surreal citrus

After a year of astonishing vigour in their growth, our trees have produced a bumper crop of lemons, kumquats and satsumas. Question is, what to do with them all?

The kumquats glow like little lanterns among dark green foliage, and our satsuma tree is so weighed down by fruit that I’ve rigged up a temporary support for the branches.

The lemons have been coming on-stream since September, so the season has been quite long. I’ve used them in baking, grated the peel, added the juice to quinoa, lentil and pasta dishes… Now, though, I have to start preserving them or the rest of the crop will go to waste.

Being organic, with no layers of preservative polish (described by Helena Attlee as a “stinking mixture of wax, fungicide and ammonia”*), the lemons last only a few days once picked. Any longer and they turn a surreal range of colours before dissolving: fun to deal with when I don’t get them to the compost boxes in time.


So I’ve turned our kitchen into what the Italians refer to as a laboratorio. I came across this word for the first time in a coffee shop by Lake Garda last June. Along with tiny cups of espresso we tasted pieces of candied citrus peel dipped in dark chocolate – the perfect pick-me-up any time, anywhere. They were made, we heard, in the laboratorio next door.

For the past few days, I’ve been experimenting, trying to find ways to keep a hold of our glorious citrus, full of essential oil in the skins, bursting with flavour, cascades of pips and astonishing amounts of juice.

The marmalade-making is coming along, slowly. Delia Smith* has a point: arguably, marmalade is best made in small batches. In any case I don’t have a decent steel pan that can take more than about 3lbs of fruit, so production is slow and steady rather than spectacular. After hours of painstaking slicing and juicing, wrapping pips and innards in muslin, boiling and tasting – plus adding a heart-stopping amount of sugar – the end product is beautiful: fragrant slivers of lemon peel with a satisfying bite suspended in a delicate lemon-flavoured jelly.

I’m also trying my hand at preserving lemons, following a recipe by Sophie Grigson*. In Egypt we usually preserve small lemons, about the size of limes, rather than the “Italian” variety. The process is far from complicated, but this batch may be accident-prone: checking the level of brine solution in the sealed jar, I could hear gas escaping and see bubbles rising – so in the interests of avoiding an explosion down the line, I’ve covered the jar with a double layer of muslin and weighted it down.  I’m checking daily to see if there’s a new build-up.

Finally I squeezed more lemons and froze the juice in ice-trays, before popping the cubes into plastic bags in the freezer for future use. Meanwhile, the peel is in the process of being candied (requiring more mountains of sugar!) This is a nostalgic trip back to Christmases past when I would spend aeons helping my mother prepare cakes and puddings by cutting up gorgeous mounds of orange, lemon and lime peel – and sample them whenever I thought she wasn’t looking.

The process takes a few days and multiple boilings: Again, I’m in uncharted  waters here, disconcerted by widely different methods depending on which book I refer to. I’m going with an antiquated British government publication*. Fingers crossed!

<a href="">Vigor</a>

* The Land where Lemons Grow – Helena Attlee – Penguin Books
* 100 Vegetarian Feasts – Sophie Grigson – My kitchen table
* Complete Cookery Course – Delia Smith – BBC Books
* Home Preservation of Fruit and Vegetables – MAFF/HMSO (neither of which exist by now, I think!)

The energy shifts

You may think nothing much is happening in the Jasmine Garden right now. It’s been quiet on the blogging front.

Not true, in fact. Although I have yet to suss out exactly which seeds should be planted when for optimal results in Egypt, the experimental raised beds aren’t doing badly. Specifically, the broad beans in RB 2 are up and should (hopefully) do well – I believe they were planted at the right time, in line with what Egyptian farmers would do. These are not just a food crop, but also a way of improving the soil, given the nitrogen-fixing properties of legumes.

The October sowing of rocket – the trustiest of all our salad leaves – in RB 1 also seems to be fine, as are the peas and (so far) the green beans. The latter two crops are from heritage seeds, as you may recall, so I will be interested to follow their progress. More on these in future posts.

But what has really struck me is how the energy flow has shifted. I would say that it has been moving for most of the year, and I don’t much like what I sense. It goes without saying that it has to do with international affairs – but these may be a symptom, rather than the cause. I feel, as we approach the end of the year, that the invisible tectonic plates of human affairs have moved, subtly and almost imperceptibly. We are now facing a new order, something both unknown and also, historically, sadly familiar.

So my garden is a great comfort in these difficult times. I totally believe it would be better for us all if more people turned back to nature, rediscovering their link with the natural world and deepening their understanding of our dependence on it, if mankind is to find a way to navigate the uncertain territory ahead.

In Egypt, this would surely be a useful approach. We face a much harder time, who knows for how long.

This month, I should have been making marmalade. We have sufficient kumquats for a new batch, and a few kilos of lemons could usefully be made into preserves. But where to find the sugar?

The reality has been that sugar disappeared from the shops for a few weeks recently. Whether due to manipulation of the market by traders, or a failure of supply, I found myself joining an incongruous queue to obtain vital packs of the stuff in one of Heliopolis’s smartest neighbourhoods. Fortunately, I could join the ladies’ queue, much shorter than the men’s, and enjoy the banter. But the fact is, I haven’t seen queues for basic foodstuffs since the 1970s.

On top of that, we face steeply rising prices for electricity, petrol and food as subsidies on a whole range of items are removed (in return for an IMF loan). The 2 kilos of sugar I could buy at the government outlet cost EGP 7 a kilo; the price is EGP 12.50 in our local supermarket. Meat has reached EGP 105 a kilo at our local butcher; better quality veal is EGP 160. At the topmost end, Aussie beef costs up to EGP 890 in an upscale supermarket where the shelves are increasingly thinly stocked. I wonder if anyone buys it.

Given that a cleaner may hope to earn EGP 120 for a full day’s work, I wonder how on earth people on an average wage can possibly hope to keep their heads above water. I suspect they don’t, but rather live from day to day, scraping by as best they can.

Imported foods are increasingly scarce. For sure, we can all manage without the luxury of biscuits and pasta from overseas – there’s pretty good stuff made locally – but for anyone who needs, say, gluten-free products or a variety of veggie proteins, the carpet has just been swept from under their feet.

In 2016 I have come to regard the Jasmine Garden as less an interesting experiment in urban cultivation – a diversion for an ageing (and increasingly aching!) writer – more as an essential contribution to a world in crisis. This is something we all need to think about deeply. I wonder how many will?